The risk is getting distracted—much as America did after 9/11—from addressing the real issues that led to the problem in the first place. “What do you think doctors and nurses need today? Do they need facial recognition, or do they need masks?” Soufan asks. “We need more hospital beds, not more smart cameras surveilling people. We need more scientists. We need an international system that can deal with this kind of problem.”
So can America find a way to strike that balance between its values and its safety?
Joshua Geltzer, who was a senior director for counterterrorism in the Obama White House, believes it can. We should follow the lead of scientists to determine what, if any, new surveillance techniques would be truly useful, he told me. Before enacting them, the government and Congress should set up a rigorous transparency and oversight regime. And they should make any new surveillance powers temporary. “It’s a question of calibration,” said Geltzer, who now teaches law at Georgetown.
Meanwhile, new proposals offer ways to monitor the pandemic without involving the government. The game developer Nicky Case recently published a summary of location-monitoring technology that “can foil both COVID-19 and Big Brother.” Using your phone’s Bluetooth signal, an app would broadcast a series of uniquely random codes while recording those of other nearby users. If you test positive for the virus, you tell the app, which automatically alerts anyone whose phone recorded your randomized codes. Since these codes contain no identifying information, your privacy remains protected. Apple and Google announced this month that they’re developing new tools that could make such an app possible, saying the technology would focus on the sort of anonymized codes that Case laid out.
But any contact-tracing technology still relies on the sort of widespread adoption required by the Singapore app. Nicholas Christakis, a pioneering sociologist and professor at Yale, has a different kind of tool in mind.
He and a team of researchers and developers are rapidly working to finalize a new app for tracking the pandemic with features that could alleviate privacy concerns. (He told me that he worries about the possible erosion of privacy in response to the pandemic, and that “the union of this modern technology and the surveillance state is very concerning.”) His app, called Hunala, is based on his research in network science, which includes the principle that your friends are generally more well connected, with more contacts, than you are. The app, which will be available for download by the end of the month, “is opt-in, and it’s anonymized,” he said. Once people download it, they’ll be asked to nominate some of their friends, who then receive a message asking them to download it too. Users volunteer to report whether they have a fever or any other COVID-19 symptoms. They also note their location when they log this data, though it is not tracked throughout the day. The team of scientists behind the app can monitor this information, provide early notice as to where new cases are cropping up, and alert public-health officials to be ready, and people can use the information to avoid areas with infections.